Monday, January 16, 2012

What Was It Like?

In view of the ten month (ahem) "vacation," there is a backlog of email waiting to be answered (4,798, to be exact), and, since we returned from the (ahem) "vacation," there is also a steady peal of joyous outcry to consider. Then, there are of course letters from our regular readers, who want the "insider's lowdown."

In the latter category, perhaps the most consistently asked question is, "What was it like?" Since this seems of interest to so many people, I propose to deal with it once -- and once only -- before I depart from the entire subject, and take up joyous pealing instead.

Well, it wasn't the worst situation, and it wasn't the best situation. 

It was just a situation.

Shortly after seven o'clock in the morning, whilst writing an item for Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar, I observed what appeared to be a large contingent of variously attired individuals armed with light automatic weapons surrounding the ranch house. I reckoned it was the cartels moving north. 

I went to my attendant's room and roused her. She had just driven in from San Francisco the night before, so she was exhausted, and when she is exhausted she is short-tempered. Accordingly, she jumped up, put on her robe, and before I could advise otherwise, burst right out the door. This is a dangerous thing to do, but she is originally from Detroit.

At least a squad's worth of submachine guns were pointed at her, shotgun slides were heard, and a large fellow with a steady carbine threw down on her, commanding her not to move. She kept walking toward them, saying, "Go ahead and shoot a woman in a bathrobe. Be a hero." They grabbed her, cuffed her, and led her to a waiting car.

I walked out at this point and asked, "Is this a training exercise, or did you boys misplace Bin Laden?"

They called me by my full name, inclusive of middle names -- by which I immediately deduced they were federal officers -- and stated they had a warrant for my arrest. 

I was relieved to find it was the FBI: the locals are trigger happy, and the cartels are worse. Turns out they also had a search warrant, which they began executing immediately, showing what I thought at the time to be remarkable courtesy, restraint, and respect.

I asked them what the arrest warrant was about, and they said, "Somebody in Baltimore has it in for you. Don't really know too much else about it. We're just serving it."

My attendant was uncuffed, allowed to dress, and sat at the dining room table, talking to one of the officers. I was chained hand and foot, and led to a waiting car by two F.B.I. agents.  I was transported to Riverside, California, to a federal courthouse, and booked by the U.S. Marshal. I have worked quite a bit with the Marshals -- out of custody and otherwise -- so I am always glad to see them. 

The U.S. Magistrate thought it best that the matter of detention be argued back East, and I agreed.

I was taken then to the federal block of the San Bernardino County Jail. This is an over-stretched facility much like what one sees in the cinema: thirteen, tiny, single man cells with open bars, facing a wall. You are let out for thirty minutes each day to use the telephone. Your food is served through a slot in the door.

So, there I was, sitting in the cell, trying to stay positive, when somebody on the block flushed a toilet, and every toilet in every cell exploded like a fountain, with water rising about three feet into the air. The fountains subsided, and the entire block was flooded about a foot deep. Yes, there were "floaters." I began laughing, thinking to myself, "School is most definitely in session."

After a few days in San Bernardino, I was chained up, taken to a bus, and driven to Southern California Logistics Airport, "Home of the Drones," in Victorville, California. An unmarked, white, passenger jet was there, together with over a dozen buses. After a considerable wait, the passengers deplaned, were searched, chained anew, and sent to their respective buses, which were bound for prisons and lockups around California.

So, this was "Con Air," or properly, JPATS: the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. It is nothing like the motion picture. It is just a dowdy, old commercial airliner, with no cages inside.

Restraints are the ubiquitous "black boxes," or three-point restraints. One wears them all the time when in movement. If you go to Court, you wear them. If you go to a hospital appointment, you wear them. They consist of leg irons, handcuffs, and a "black box" made of metal that separates the hands, holding them rigid, through which a chain is threaded. The chain is cinched around your waist, and locked with a padlock. The handcuffs and leg irons are both double-locked. So, you waddle along, your left hand over your right hand, palms facing each other, chained roughly waist high.

The plane took off from Victorville in the late morning, and after a time, it flew over the stupa. I could clearly see the stupa's mandala from the air.

We flew to Arizona, to pick up and drop off inmates in Arizona prisons. From Arizona, we flew to Oklahoma City -- straight to the heart of the American Gulag -- to a place I will not soon forget. When the plane arrives, you walk down the jetway straight into the prison itself. The "airport" is a prison! You stand in two long lines down a hall, and step up on a platform where your leg irons and chains are removed. You have a quick visit with a Public Health Officer, get an issue of clothes, and fill out a few forms. All of your clothes, shoes, and so forth are taken and mailed to your last known residential address.

The next time you are bumped from a flight and have to camp out in the airport, stop and think it could be worse: you could be in Oklahoma City, chained up next to a cannibal.

Very similar to this

Detainees are then shepherded into a large quad, very clean, very quiet, with two man cells. The cells have regular doors. You are locked in for "count," and at night, but the rest of the time you can open or close them as you wish. You can enjoy a constant supply of books, several television rooms, and a basketball court. You can send and receive emails (for a fee), and make telephone calls home.  The place is run quite efficiently, and if you have particular concerns, they are dealt with almost immediately.

The day after Losar, I again boarded the ancient airliner and flew to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From Harrisburg, I was driven to downtown Baltimore -- to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, MCAC or "Supermax" (Super Maximum Security) as it is known -- the old Maryland Death Row; but, since the month prior to my arrival, operating as a Federal Metropolitan Detention Center, under contract with the U.S. Marshal's Service. 

At first encounter, Supermax seems like something out of a Dickens novel: one hesitates, for example, to ask for more gruel. It is a relatively small facility (around 500 inmates or less), built to house the worst of the worst. Its size contributes to its overall efficiency. A few hours after my arrival, I was amazed to find the entire staff seemed to know my name. The unspoken rule seemed to be, "If you're cordial with us, we're cordial with you," but troublemakers were firmly removed just as quickly as they were identified. 

Like most prisons in America, it was built with juiced contractors, so some systems barely function and are in constant need of repair. At Supermax, the malfunctioning system is climate control: you are either freezing cold or blazing hot, with no in-betweens. There is a consequently brisk demand for personal fans (USD $23.00, from a catalog), watch caps, and long underwear (various prices, also from a catalog). The fiscal year 2012 appropriation for this facility is $24 million, so I hope they fix the air conditioning.

Well, it wasn't the best place I've ever been, nor was it the worst. 

Not by a long shot.

Similar to this, except retrofitted for two man use;
has a shelf and a desk-like arrangement

Each pod consists of twelve cells, six up, six down. The upper tier is fenced in, so nobody can get thrown over the railing. There is but a single shower, so people must take turns. There is a microwave, four telephones, and a television. There is a caged-in "outdoor" recreation yard, and if you have the proper shoes and so forth, you can go out and shoot baskets.

The day begins around 5:00 a.m., when some sorry excuse for a breakfast is served. This is also when you mail your letters, and put in any sick call slips you may have. The electric doors slide open just long enough to pick up a breakfast tray, and then they slide shut behind you. Around 8:00 a.m., there is security shakedown and morning recreation. Corrections Officers search your cells, and frisk you for weapons. 

"Recreation" consists of demanding, whining, screaming, shouting, and cursing, and the common area television being turned on, full blast, to non-stop episodes of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Judge This-Or-That: a blaring revel of negativity, interrupted only by sporting events in the afternoons and evenings. Morning medications are administered anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. -- never, in my experience, the same time two days in a row

Around eleven or twelve, you are served an awful "lunch," which is either baloney and cheese, or cheese and baloney. Afternoon "recreation" consists of listening to more Jerry, playing Dominos, or Spades, screaming, shouting, whining, and cursing -- and occasionally threatening -- until lock-down for the count at 2:00 p.m.. Afternoon medications are given between 2:00 and 2:30.

Near 4:00 p.m., the doors open again. Mail is distributed. Critiques are held concerning Jerry, Maury, Judge So-and-So, and whatever sporting contest seems uppermost in everyone's attention at the time. Whining, screaming, shouting, cursing, and threatening are supplemented by howling, rule-breaking for the hell of it, jostling, and smoking. 

Around 6:00 p.m., a horrible "dinner" is served on trays -- better it should be served in skulls: cuisine is nouvelle Calcutta sewage -- and I can promise you, this is absolutely the worst maggot-infested mess I have ever encountered anywhere. There are only so many things you can do with maggot. You can boil them, fry them, and simmer them in soups. If you're a vegetarian like me, you'll have to make do without maggot and opt for the rotten vegetables, served as "coleslaw," but known as "cold-slain."

This is probably one of the safest prisons in America, and the staff are truly professional. I never saw any violence of any kind while I was there, no did I encounter any of the horrors one is led to expect from movies and television. I did have some serious health problems when I first got there, and the officers and staff went above and beyond to help me out.

I was rather ill when I was arrested, having been hospitalized not long before. I discharged, against medical advice, only to determine an astrologically opportune day for surgery. My conditioned worsened with the stress of travel, incarceration, and trouble at home. On March 8th, upon returning to MCAC from Court, I collapsed while in chains. Fortunately, the prison doctor was on duty. He examined me and called 911.

Baltimore Fire Department Paramedics arrived and ran an EKG, which demonstrated an infarction. I was taken straightaway to Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, and admitted. Two days later I had surgery, and after a brief convalescence (a few hours I recall), I was taken to the prison hospital at the Metropolitan Transition Center (MTC).

Now, this is a very special place, seeing as it is the oldest continuously operating penal institution in the Western world. It was authorized in 1804 and opened in 1811. It houses Maryland's execution chamber -- first a gallows, then a gas chamber, and now a lethal injection chamber. In 1956, a portion of the original 1811 building was retrofitted as a sixty bed general hospital, so that is where I wound up.

This was not a nice place. I was in terrible pain, and confused by all the unfamiliar drugs. I was also bleeding quite a bit. I remember lying in the bed at night, watching rats make their way around a ledge on the wall. They would stop and look at me, decide I wasn't ripe enough, and keep moving. I stayed there for around ten days, and then I went back to Mercy Hospital for a second surgery.

At Mercy, I was always chained hand and foot to the bed, and attended by two armed guards. I was even chained in the operating room, where one of the guards was also present. It does not matter who you are. That is just the way they do things.

After the second visit to Mercy, I went back to MTC for a brief stay, and then, thankfully, I returned to MCAC.  

Upon arrival, I almost immediately went into withdrawals from a month's worth of narcotic pain relievers. The officers helped me every way they could, and I have a lasting sense of gratitude for the way I was treated. 

Somewhere in mid-April, I went back to Court, where the U.S. Magistrate ruled that I could be released. My release was contingent on staying in Maryland. Friends of mine offered to fly in, rent an apartment for me, and help with necessities, but this seemed like a waste. I decided to stay where I was. You can get detrimentally attached to the idea of "freedom," to the point where it just destroys you. You can get unreasonably attached to this place or that place. Fortunately, at my age, one place is more or less like any other place. Of course I have preferences, but it is likewise a good idea not to become attached to those preferences.

Better learn how to be comfortable wherever you are.

They served us Dole fruit cups, and these made nice offering bowls. I saved them up. I was able to get some uncooked rice for the bowls, and the rest of the offerings I drew with colored pencils on paper. I made a serkyem out of a fruit cup and a medicine cup, and managed to keep it filled with daily tea. After considerable negotiation, I managed to get a mala delivered, and from then out it was smooth sailing. I just stayed in the cell and practiced all day. In the evenings, I would write letters and do some sketching, and then to sleep at around ten o'clock.

At one point, I had some sort of a stroke, or transient ischemic event (TIE), and was taken out to Bon Secours Hospital. I stayed for a couple of days, and was brought back via MTC. This was nothing particularly remarkable. As time went on, I had a few more surgical procedures, but these were also unremarkable.

If you know a Buddhist who is locked up, the most useful things are a mala, some postcard-sized images, practice texts, and if required, books and commentaries. Unless you have the sadhanas memorized, the main thing is the practice texts. If you don't have a mala you can count on your fingers, and if you don't have images, you can work on visualization with special vigor. All things considered, I think the best book for prisoners is Dzongsar Khyentse's What Makes You Not A Buddhist. As to which practice might be best, that is an individual matter, and I would not care to speculate.

Every door that closes behind you will one day open before you. Either you will walk out or they will carry you out. 

Sure enough, one day the door opened, and I walked out.

So, that is what it was like...

...sort of.


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4 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for this. We do prison work at our Sangha in D.C. and will learn from your experience. You were missed.
Patrick /Kagyu Drupdru Chodzong

snakespeak said...

Thank you for relating the experience. I wondered what happened. I miss the Vajra perspective. I study now with a Mahayana teacher whom I love dearly, but sitting with demons in non-judgmental dialog seems deeper. It reminds me of a retreat I went on years ago after being released from jail with a hefty bond. My teacher was Sang Ngag Rinpoche, who spent many years in prison under the Chinese and met his teacher while incarcerated. Ironically, his translator had just been released from jail in time for the retreat. It seems to be a common experience.

Anonymous said...

A common experience, indeed!

It's the prison outside prison that's the real bitch.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your courage, your honesty, and for coming back to us!